Enlightenment and endarkenment

(Neil’s Note: This is the final part of my 8,300+-word monster essay on the subject of bottom up versus top down thinking.)

Thus far, I’ve presented bottom up and top down thinking as polar opposites. While this is indeed what they are, it’s also true that few people think either in a totally bottom up or a totally top down manner. Each individual tends, by his nature and training, to go one way rather than the other. Those trained in mathematics and science, for example, tend to exert the discipline to think bottom up; while those in “softer” disciplines, like politics or media studies, are far more likely to think top down.

Young children, as I noted earlier, start their lives learning, and so thinking, from the bottom up. And yet, many – too many – seem to reach a point of stagnation. Often, at quite an early stage in their lives, individuals’ mental development seems to stop. And they no longer learn, as they did when children, from the bottom up. Top down thinking seems to take over.

Why is this? I think it’s because they have caught a disease. I call this disease endarkenment. Top down thinking is a symptom of this social ailment. It’s a very serious malady; societies afflicted with it are likely to die, if it isn’t cured. I think of endarkenment as like a cancer – a cancer of the body politic, if you will. And I think of the top down thinkers, or endarkenmentalists, that carry and spread this disease – many of them in high positions in politics, government, academe and the media – as like cancer cells.

The analogy with cancer is, I think, a good one. For, just as cancer cells often don’t stop growing until the host dies, so the cancerous political state doesn’t stop growing until it has consumed its body politic. Just as cancer cells ignore messages sent to them by other cells, so do cancerous thinkers ignore what other people think or want. Just as cancer cells send out messages to other cells to confuse them into doing things against their and the host’s interests, so do cancerous thinkers spew out lies, scares and deceptions to confuse people into acting against their true interests. (They spew out lots of legislation to coerce people into acting against their interests, too). And, just as cancer cells fail to mature and grow up into roles useful to the host, so do most cancerous thinkers fail to grow up into productive, honest, useful members of society.

I’ll contrast this social cancer, which I call endarkenment and whose main symptom is top down thinking, with its opposite. At one level, that opposite is, as you would expect, enlightenment with a small e. Not only is this kind of enlightenment the consequence of bottom up thinking, but it also helps bottom up thinkers move towards further enlightenment.

At a higher level, though, the opposite of endarkenment is also capital-E Enlightenment. That is, a set of values associated with the historical Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

For, when I try to list the primary characteristics of bottom up thinking, I find myself coming up with many Enlightenment values; or, otherwise said, liberal values. For example: Reason and the pursuit of science. Toleration and a focus on the individual. The idea that society exists for the individual, not the individual for society. The idea that human beings are naturally good. Freedom of thought and action. Natural rights and human dignity. Government for the benefit of the governed. Moral equality and the rule of law. A desire for progress, and rational optimism for the future.

The primary characteristics of top down thinking, on the other hand, are very much opposed to these Enlightenment values. I’ll list a few: Superstition. Collectivism. Orthodoxy, dogma and political correctness. Lies, deceit and misdirection. Faux “equality.” Bad laws and injustices. War. The politicization of everything. State control over almost every aspect of our lives. Hypocrisy and double standards. A climate of alarm and much-ado-about-nothing. These are the things that top down thinkers like, and want to force on all of us. These are the non-values of endarkenment.

So, to conclude. It’s clear, to me at least, that endarkenment – a cancer-like social disease, that leads to top down thinking – is the root cause of the evils of our times. And that endarkenmentalists, those that promote top down thinking, are the cancer cells that carry and spread this malady.

It’s also clear to me what the cure for endarkenment must be. The cure is Enlightenment. That is, we human beings need to re-discover, dust off, re-polish and apply to today’s ills the best liberal values of our past. And to carry them forward into our future.


  • There needs to be some “top down” thinking in order that can be “bottom up” thinking – or, in my language rather than yours, the government needs to be got out of the way (and that means political action) so that individuals and voluntary organisations (families, churches, clubs, companies and so on) can get on with making life less terrible.

    “Loophole capitalism” or the “black economy” is no real answer to massive government taxes, spending and regulations (and the credit bubble fiat money financial system).

    It is true that most Latin American countries have vast numbers of people who operate outside the official economy (due to the web of government regulations and costs) – but this is not a good thing, the lives of these people (outside the official economy) are terrible – they are terrible because their “hole in the wall” business enterprises can not take advantage of economies of scale (which are very real and are NOT the result of state intervention). The web of regulations needs to be repealed – telling people to just operate as-if it did not exist (bribing policemen and inspectors when they need to) is no real solution.

    Telling individuals and private organisations to just ignore the state and get on with things will not work – big government can not just be ignored (its armed servants will not allow that), it needs to be actively (and dramatically) reduced in both size and scope.

    The difficulty is that that reducing the size and scope of government is incredibly difficult.

    For example the last time it happened in the United States was in the late 1940s – when the so called “do nothing Congress” (which was actually very active) repealed quite a lot of “New Deal” schemes.

    With the collapse of Marxist socialism in Eastern Europe there was a dramatic reduction of statism in some countries – especially in Estonia, where people with a real commitment to Civil Society (to a much smaller government) managed to hold office – although this has been partly (only partly) been reversed by the entry of Estonia into the European Union (with all its subsidies and regulations).

    In those parts of the Western World that were never part of the Marxist world, developments in Israel and New Zealand are worthy of note.

    Israel (not Sweden – which is just an example of a big Welfare State, with no real attempt and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange) was the great hope, from the 1940s to the 1970s, of those socialists who did not follow the Marxist line of Moscow and Peking.

    However, only about 5% of Israeli Jews choose to live in the various forms of communal communities – and these communities (of various sorts) have gone into dramatic decline since government subsidies (and other special treatment) started to be withdrawn in the 1970s. I believe that lost dream of a socialist Israel (not love of the “Palestinians” – Islamists who believe in oppressing woman and exterminating homosexuals, and do NOT care about a “nation of Palestine” seeing the area between “the river and the sea” as just part of a vast Islamic Empire) is the real reason that the modern left hates Israel with such a fanatical fashion. The dream of a Robert Owen style community in the sun has been replaced by the reality of a small nation state that is rather like Texas – religious, very committed to the military virtues. pro private business……. The love of the left has, quite naturally, turned to hate. Although Israel still has some very real problems – government ownership of land (which makes “who lives where” a POLITICAL matter) and the leftist stranglehold on the government education system, being two of them.

    New Zealand shows that “impossible” economic reforms are possible – even in long established system, For example it “should” (according to “Public Choice” and other “Adam Smith Institute” style thinking) be impossible to end farm subsidies – “concentrated interest versus diffuse interest” especially in a country with a lot of farmers.

    However, farm subsidies were abolished (and the farmers got on just fine without them – they adapted as people will if ALLOWED to do so). And other major reforms were made.

    However, the key problem of New Zealand remains – the government pays people to be poor, so one has a rising “underclass”.

    This practice of governments of paying people to be poor (causing terrible social and cultural, as well as economic, harm over generations) is not limited to New Zealand.

  • As for the “enlightenment” – a lot of different (and opposed) intellectual movements are lumped together by modern people into the 18th century “enlightenment”.

    For example, David Hume is often cited as a example of the Scottish enlightenment – this would have utterly astonished people at the time, who considered David Hume the leading OPPONENT (or at least critic – critic if he did not really mean the things he implies) of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment – the two key ideas being that human beings could (independently of scripture) work out moral right from moral wrong and choose between them.

    If people can not tell good (moral good) from evil (without the guidance of either scripture or the state) then liberty is a nonstarter. And if people can not choose between right (moral right) and wrong then liberty is logically impossible (and human “freedom” becomes as morally meaningless as the “freedom” of water after a dam has blown up), the very definition of moral freedom being the capacity for real choice (the ability to choose to do other than we do – moral responsibility).

    Without this the whole concept of moral “rights” under natural law is meaningless. And “we hold these truths to be self evident” (Thomas Jefferson – but really Thomas Reid) is an absurdity – as if the Bill of Rights (both British and American).

    Those who deny moral liberty (free will – moral responsibility) naturally enough do not tend to care about the “euthanasia of the constitution” and the rise of absolute monarchy (or other forms of tyranny). Why care about the death of liberty if liberty does not really exist anyway?

    Whatever David Hume’s real opinions actually were (and this is hotly contested), there is no doubt of the determinism of Thomas Hobbes and Martin Luther – and their support for (or indifference to) the absolute state (political despotism) naturally follows from this.

    Sadly a lot of the “enlightenment” in France in the 18th century reflected a lot of this.

    As James McCosh showed in the 19th century (“The Scottish Philosophy” 1877) – many of the 18th century French thinkers even interpreted John Locke in a materialist and determinist way (a one sided, indeed utterly distorted, interpretation of John Locke) – they, the French thinkers, did not really support freedom. They wanted to get rid of the King (at least a weak King like Louis XVI), certainly, but only to put an even worse regime in his place.

    The French enlightenment did not start out that way.

    Montesquieu (for all his lack of knowledge of economics – an area of thought where DAVID HUME was actually very strong) was sound when it came to politics – wanting to limit the monarchy and restore old limiting institutions (not replace the monarchy with a new regime that would be even more unlimited and absolute).

    But after Montesquieu the French Enlightenment lost its way and became a very different sort of thing from the Scottish Enlightenment – something that John Adams (like Edmund Burke) understood, but Thomas Jefferson (wilfully blind) refused to accept – treating the French Revolution as a similar sort of thing to the American Revolution (which it most certainly was not).

    The nightmare of horror that was the French Revolution (only moral cretins deny that hundreds of thousands of, mostly quite ordinary, people were slaughtered by the collectivist French Revolutionary forces – mostly in rural areas, and that the French Revolutionaries wished to impose their doctrines, by war, on the rest of Europe), was the logical outcome of the collectivist doctrines of French thinkers – not just Rousseau, but even the French thinkers whom Rousseau attacked.

    There was a major recovery in French philosophy in the 19th century – bringing it back closer to the Scottish Enlightenment (see again James McCosh “The Scottish Philosophy” 1877), but this is largely forgotten now.

    In England the enlightenment can be traced back to Ralph Cudworth – yes he believed in witches, but that is utterly irrelevant to the two central questions, Can human beings (independently of both scripture and the state)with effort tell moral right from moral wrong? And can human beings (again with effort) choose to do the morally good thing against their desire to do evil? Can we do other than we do.

    Unless the answer to both these questions is “yes” then freedom (both moral and political) is a nonstarter. Kant may well have been wrong about many things – but he was correct to denounce “compatiblism” as an absurdity (either we have the real capacity for choice – or we do not).

    From here the enlightenment can be traced in England all the way to such 20th century Oxford thinkers as Harold Prichard, Sir William David Ross and Antony Flew – as well such cultural Oxford thinkers as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis).


    The Aristotelian tradition also accepted that human beings had moral responsibility – that we the capacity for real choice, and could (with effort) tell moral right from moral wring (independently of scripture and also independently of the state).

    See “On Fate” by the great “Commentator” on Aristotle – who guided the understanding of Aristotle from the Roman Empire to the both the rise of Islam (mainstream Sunni Islam eventually rejected Aristotle and embraced both philosophical determinism and the idea that moral good is simply want God commands and moral bad is simply want God forbids – ideas that can all be found in Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes as well as mainstream Islam, hence their support for political absolutism) and Catholic Scholastic thought (which embraced Aristotle on the two central questions – can human beings know right from wrong independently of scripture, and can human beings really choose between moral right and moral wrong).

    Someone like Edmund Burke can be seen as part of the Aristotelian tradition – and this does NOT mean he accepted the claims to authority of the Bishop of Rome.

    After all Richard Hooker had brought these (pro reason and pro freedom) ideas into the heart of the Anglican tradition – and showed that there was nothing in them that meant following the Bishop of Rome, and also that they did NOT contradict the importance of tradition.

    Such English lawyers as Chief Justice Sir Edward Cook and Chief Justice Sir John Holt (the Whig Chief Justice of the period after 1688 and all that) also understood these matters. Thomas Hobbes was quite correct to identify “students of the Common Law of England” as his great enemies (at least the Common Law as it was understood in his time, with its assumptions of people able to tell right from wrong, and having the ability to choose to do right against the desire to do evil – as opposed to Hobbesian determinism and support for political absolutist tyranny).

    In short ENGLAND did not really need an “Enlightenment” – these matters were already understood here.

    As Karl B. (the German Swiss theologian) put it “the British are hopelessly Pelagian” – actually “semi Pelagian” would be closer to the truth, but one must not become obsessed with hair splitting.

  • Mr Locke – it would help if, in this the concluding part of your essay, you reminded readers what your definitions of “bottom up thinking” and “top down thinking” actually are. In this actual post you define neither term.

    As to the claim that people trained in mathematics or the natural sciences are normally “bottom up” thinkers…..

    Many such people have been collectivists – of various sorts.

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